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Concourse 2

Understanding listening


There is a saying that for many people the opposite of speaking isn't listening, it's waiting.  However, for the purposes of this guide we shall be considering listening as one of the four essential language skills our students need to acquire.

You acquired your first language(s) by listening.  The ability to hear and understand is fundamental to the ability to communicate and learn in a foreign language, too.

Some of what follows will be easier to understand if you have followed the guide to reading.


A little history

Traditionally, listening has been used in the language classroom as a vehicle for other kinds of learning and teaching.  A listening text can be used this way to introduce new items of vocabulary or to focus on a particular structure.  If it is used this way a lesson involving a listening text would normally follow a predictable pattern.  (Note, by the way, the use of the term 'text' here.  Texts are not only written.)
Like this:
(Adapted from Field 1998:110)

Starting from the left:

  1. The teacher checks the text carefully to identify words the learners would be unlikely to know and without which they will not understand the text sufficiently.  These words are then introduced and practised before the listening part of the lesson begins.  At this point, too, the scene is usually set: e.g., You are going to listen to a telephone conversation between a man and a woman.
  2. After or before first listening to the whole piece, learners are set 'gist' questions to see if they have a global understanding of the text: What's it about? How many people are speaking? Where are they? etc.
  3. Then comes the listening proper and at this stage the text is usually interrupted to allow the learners time to note answers to a set of questions designed to test their detailed understanding such as Who does the caller want to talk to? Is that person at home? What does the man offer to do? How does the woman respond? etc.  These sorts of questions might also focus on the attitudes of the speakers, e.g., Is the man happy or disappointed?
  4. When that phase is satisfactorily completed, attention turns to the language content of the text to focus on things like new lexis, intonation patterns, politeness strategies, question intonation and so on.  Any language item at all can be introduced this way.
  5. Finally, the listening text is revisited to ensure full understanding and recall.

It is not being argued here that using a listening text in this way is somehow 'wrong' or misguided.  However, it has long been realised that such procedures do not teach people how to become better listeners in a foreign language, they test how good they already are.


Types of text.  What do we listen to?

Here's a list of possible text types that anyone might listen to in a day or so.

a radio news programme a TV soap opera an anecdote
a train announcement the lyrics of a song a set of instructions at work
a waiter explaining the menu an answering service message a lecture

Now think about how we listen to these things.  Do we, for example, try to hear and understand every word?  Do we concentrate hard or does our mind wander a little?  Do we or can we interrupt the speaker for clarification or repetition?  Do we switch off at times and monitor what we are hearing for something that interests us?
When you have an answer, click for some comments.


Types of listening.  How do we listen?

Listening for information
This comes in three modes:
First, we can be listening to try to understand as much of the text as we can.  This will apply to a lecture or the waiter's explanation, for example.
Second, we may be listening for key words to trigger more intensive concentration.  This occurs when we listen to a string of announcements waiting for our flight or destination to be mentioned.
Third, we may be listening in a monitoring mode, getting the gist of what we hear only, e.g., this news item is about sport, this one's about an accident etc.  We may do this until we hear something that catches our attention and then we switch to a more intensive mode.
Listening for discourse clues
This kind of listening involves paying conscious attention to what is being signalled by the speaker.  There are examples above about how this might happen in a lecture but it will also happen in other kinds of texts.  Anecdotes, for example, are littered with time expressions to guide the hearer through the sequence of events and may be punctuated by appeals for response of confirmation such as Don't you see? or You'll never guess who it was ... .  Listening out for such things makes the task of listening and understanding easier.
Intensive listening
In this mode we need to deploy our knowledge of the meaning and pronunciation of the lexis as well as the way in which structures such as tenses and their aspects inform us of the relationship between events and things.

It isn't easy and it's made more complex by the need to switch between listening modes when, for example, a key word triggers the anticipation that something important or interesting will follow.


Bottom-up and top-down processing

You will encounter these terms both in the discussion of listening and reading because they are applicable to both.

Bottom-up processing
involves the learners using knowledge of the meaning and pronunciation of words, knowledge of the grammar of the language and how texts fit together to understand the meaning of what they hear.
Top-down processing
involves learners using their knowledge of the world and the type of thing they are listening to (its usual organisation and the topics) to fill in gaps with intelligent guesswork and prediction.

To help you understand, think about this list of strategies that learners may use to understand what they hear and ask yourself if they are depending on their language knowledge or on other sorts of knowledge (bottom-up or top-down).
Click here when you have a few notes.

1 I know these two characters in the film are enemies so I'm listening to see what the argument is about. 2 I'm listening for the word 'Malaga' because that's where I'm going. 3 I know how this person's tall stories usually end so I'm listening to see if I'm right.
4 This is obviously an important new instruction so I want to understand everything.  I'll interrupt when something's not clear. 5 I like this song and I know it's about a lost love so I'm listening for words that will tell me how the singer feels. 6 I'm waiting for a TV news story about the American Presidential election so when I hear 'Democrat' or 'Republican' or see a US flag I can start listening properly.
7 I'm waiting till nearly the end of the news report because that's where the sports news always comes. 8 Ah!  He just said 'That's the first of the three obvious problems' so I've written '2' in my notebook and I'll try to understand where and when the next two come. 9 This is a picture of a hospital so I'll listen out for words I know connected to hospitals and health to understand the story.

There is a clear implication here:
We need to make sure that we use a range of texts and procedures to ensure that our students get adequate practice in all the listening skills.
Take a short test on all this to remind you of the most important ideas and when you are happy that you have understood this page, click here to go on to some teaching ideas.

Field, J, 1998, Skills and strategies: towards a new methodology for listening, ELT Journal Volume 52/2 April 1998 Oxford: Oxford University Press
Other references you may find helpful:
Anderson, A & Lynch, T, 1988, Listening, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Brown, G, 1990, Listening to Spoken English, Harlow: Longman
Buck, G, 2001, Assessing Listening, Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press
Field, J, 2009, Listening in the Language Classroom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Lynch, T, 2009, Teaching Second Language Listening, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Rost, M, 1990, Listening in Language Learning, Harlow: Longman
Rost, M, 2002, Teaching and Researching Listening, Pearson
Underwood, M, 1989, Teaching Listening, Harlow: Longman
Ur, P, 1984, Teaching Listening Comprehension, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
White, G, 1998, Listening, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Wilson, JJ. & Wilson, JJ, 2008, How to Teach Listening (1st Ed.), Harlow: Pearson Longman